The poses featured in Week 1 of #FireUpFebruary on my Instagram feed are, I think, Essentials: not so flashy or new, they may not make the most compelling inversion or arm balance yoga photos, but I’ve included them because they’re important, especially to and for those of us who are practicing yoga not just for its exercise benefits, but for its systemic benefits.
Okay. It’s 2019, but the glitter of a new year is all rubbed off, and the winter and the routine has set back in. We had massive high hopes for what we’d accomplish and how much we’d change this year, and maybe we’re stuck in the same habits and distractions as before. I get it. Maybe you wanted to try something new, and you got scared and chickened out. I’m not here to judge you about it, I did for sure. But I do have an offering for us that might restore a bit of confidence and delight in ourselves, that will teach us to care for ourselves because self-care is a joy, not a burden or a to-do item. If winter’s starting to grind on you, and you want a resource to help you find your way through it, I hope you’ll join me for #FireUpFebruary.
Fire Up February is a month-long yoga challenge I’m hosting on Instagram centering how yoga and pranayama can be a tool for supporting women’s health. Starting on February 1, I’ll post a short how-to video of postures, and though the sequence is designed to support women at various stages of health and in their cycle, the postures and practices are suitable for anyone who’s looking for some asana inspiration.
The schedule breaks down like this:
Week One February 1-7 Essential Postures
These are poses that are good for anyone at any time of the month, and are accessible from beginners to seasoned yogis. These poses offer balance, strength, poise, flexibility, and expansion.
Week Two February 8-14 Vigorous Postures
These are poses that are more challenging or sophisticated: arm balances, inversions, deeper backbends, and postures that put the spine through more a complex range of motion. Newer yogis attempting these poses should listen to their body, work slowly, and seek the guidance of a seasoned and trusted teacher if any questions or concerns arise.
Week Three February 15-21 Prenatal Postures
While Week One postures are safe for expectant people, these poses are especially modified for pregnant folx. Be sure to have a wall nearby, a sturdy, non-slip chair, and a block or two for extra support.
Week Four February 22-28 Restorative Postures
These poses are for anyone who needs a little extra rest or softness. You’ll find they use more props than some of the others—bolsters or pillows, blocks and blankets, and a chair. While in the video I’m in them for only a brief moment, you should feel free to linger in them as long as you like.
In addition to the postures you’ll find on IG, every week, I’ll be posting a brief how-to video featuring a pranayama or dhyana (mental concentration) technique here that pairs with its corresponding week. So plan to check back here every week for additional content to help support your practice.
How can you stay involved? Comment on the videos with questions, concerns, victories, or lessons as you practice these poses with me, or comment here weekly on the pranayama techniques. Tag me and use the Hashtag #FireUpFebruary when you upload content on IG. These are all ways to connect with other folx who are interested in using this practice to support their physical, mental, and emotional health.
I hope this February challenge gives us the chance to dig deep and slough off some of the winter doldrums that can come with the snowy, cloudy days. I hope it can teach us all to listen deeply to our bodies. Rather than pushing with our egos, or with our sense of obligation, I hope we can unroll our mats, and if only for a few minutes a day tune in to our bodies and our needs. What a gift to have a body you can take care of: let’s treat it like the marvelous, complex, miraculous place that it is.
Come with me.
I woke up from a dream this morning, in which I was eating plastic. Literally. I'd eaten a takeout container or two, and a couple of those black, plastic spoons they have on the salad bars and hot bars at grocery stores. They were in shards and small pieces inside me, taking up a lot of space, but I knew and could feel that I wasn't being nourished. I was afraid of what would happen when I tried to... eliminate, and was sure that all that plastic was going to tear the insides of my bowels apart.
So my body knows, my subconscious knows. I'm not eating well. This is due to a number of factors: my routine, and my struggle to work it in the most efficient way so I continue to nourish myself; choices I've made about how to eat, which mean I don't just throw any old thing into my mouth; the unique bouquet of cravings and samskaras that have a solid grip on the choices I make, especially when I'm too stressed or tired to do better; previous programming, which is loosening its grip with each passing day. Whatever the case, feeding myself is sometimes a challenge.
Wow. I'm an adult. Like, I have a mortgage, I've been married for years, I had to sue somebody once-adult. And I'm still having to wrestle with making sure I eat the way I want to: eat food that tastes good, that doesn't harm my body, and doesn't harm others or the planet. What I eat has been a source of contention between me and other people. Lucky for me I share my home with a man who doesn’t really mind what I eat, so long as I’m choosing to eat, and not stuck in a pattern of eating my feelings, and so long as I’m relatively healthy. I don’t get crap from him about choosing not to eat animals who are… harmed* before they’re killed in order to put food on plates. I don’t get mocked by my partner, which is more than I can say for other members of my family. But that’s a different story for a different day. (And if you want to hear it, you can find it on this page, at least until I get bumped off this podcast.)
I take a lot of pleasure in eating. Being both gluten free and vegan means I get to be creative about how I eat. It doesn’t take much work for my meals not to taste like rabbit food, but still, I get to have a lot of fun considering how I’ll compose breakfast or dinner in such a way that it’s healthy and interesting.
Eating like a minimalist is challenging for me. I like to spend time making food. I like meals with lots of different, even fancy, ingredients. Now, I haven’t found any clear manual about what minimalist eating is, and frankly, I’m not sure how interested I am. I understand that the fewer ingredients in food generally the healthier it is, and generally the fewer apparatuses its touched the easier it’ll be for me to digest. But minimalist eating is… hard to pin down.
I think not only am I struggling to figure out what it means to engage in minimalist eating, but the controlling nature of eating this way makes me feel a bit unstable. I feel like I’m tiptoeing toward disordered eating, a landscape I’ve been in before (hard to imagine any woman in America hasn’t been there before). It took me months to finish this blog post because the week or so that I spent experimenting with this practice was triggering. I couldn’t reflect on it because I didn’t like the way it felt. Finally, after some distance and time, and the capacity to remember that nourishing doesn’t mean processed crap, but also doesn’t mean two baby peas, three grains of rice, and a thimble full of hummus for lunch—after all that, I can write that I’m happy eating the way I do, even if it’s not always convenient, or even understandable, to others, and that while I can try not to be wasteful about it, I can also be creative without compromising my minimalism.
Look at this.
I was recently at Union Theological Seminary, and as a part of their swag bag, they gave me this reusable utensil set. A sustainably grown bamboo fork, knife, spoon AND chopstick set all housed in this pouch made of recycled water bottles. I was just knocked out by it: that is some ecological justice, right there! I carry it in my bag (so long as it fits) wherever I go, and I don’t have to worry about using plastic unnecessarily. I Love It!
So, minimalism at the table is tricky. The next step for me isn’t about eating less, or controlling my calories or portions more; it’s about making sure I buy and take only what I know I will eat, using what I buy, and wasting as little as possible. That will be a tough and exciting challenge.
I don’t have a lot of memories of worship, but the ones I do linger indelibly, like scars that never fade: I was maybe 14. For some reason I’d joined the youth choir: I don’t know why, I hated singing, everything always seemed to be too high or too low, and I’d wind up screeching like a wounded bird or bellowing like cattle. Not only this, but I was painfully shy. I hated drawing attention to myself, and as an only child, I was often put on the spot to perform for friends and relatives, to be impressive. Singing was the absolute worst.
My mother and I were in church together, my father was somewhere, working. The pastor got up to speak, and before he did, he asked if the youth choir would get up and sing something.
Never have I wished so fervently for a trap door to open and swallow me up. Horror seized me, clamping its fist around my stomach. I darted my eyes around the sanctuary: there weren’t many of us “youth” there, so I could tell that my thin, scared voice would not be well-masked, but that people would be able to hear me.
I turned to my mother. “Don’t make me go,” I whispered as she poked my leg.
“Go on, Jessica, you’re part of the youth choir,” she whispered back.
“Please, I don’t want to, please, please don’t make me go,” I grabbed her hand, my eyes begging.
She likely hissed at me that I was embarrassing her—my representing well was of crucial importance because my behavior was always a reflection on her—and I reluctantly stepped out of our pew and plodded up to the front of our small sanctuary.
I don’t remember what we sang, but I remember that it felt like it would never end. I’m sure the anguish of singing, and the fear of being heard, was written all over my face.
When I returned to my seat, she let me have it, her face a contorted mask of rage, her voice a laser-like, acidic whisper: what a disappointment I was, why I couldn’t just act right, how humiliated she was by me. I sat beside her, weeping silently, furious with her that she would make me put myself in such a difficult position so she could feel good about herself, and even more angry that she didn’t understand how scary it was for me to open up my mouth and sing anything. I knew I hadn’t done well, she shouldn’t have made me go in the first place because it was clear I was going to suck out loud—and I had!—and somehow that was my fault too.
Just another worship experience.
As a yoga teacher, I have to use my voice all the time: it’s easier now to project around the room when I need to so that folks can hear me as I remind them to use their breath; I don’t even mind finding a note to let OM begin to ring through me, hopeful (but not demanding) that others join me in the sound. I’ve been able to overcome my shyness—or maybe the desire to teach and hold space for other people is stronger than the desire to be swallowed up by burnt orange Berber carpet—so that speaking up is easier to do. Chanting is the easiest part of class, both as a student and a teacher. My teacher practices a chant at the start of every class he teaches. He says he does it to center himself, to ask for guidance and clarity, wisdom and light, in the endeavor he’s about to make in teaching, and that even if no one else joined him, he’d still belt it out full force. When I started training with both my senior teachers, they taught me a mantra that I try to practice every day. The first time I heard it, I got chills: not sure if it was the circle-as-container, the deep vibration of their voices together, or just the intersection of Sanskrit, my body, and my heart. But whatever it was, it landed on me in a big way.
In class as a practitioner whenever I open my mouth, I work to listen to the voice of my teacher, and the voices of the others around me, in pursuit of a kind of blending of vibrations. When I’m teaching, I make sound that I hope will seal and affirm the energy of the room, and give the students a foundation on which they can allow their own voices to be raised, trembling or clear, flat pitch or true.
My friend Allegra, who’s the executive director of Sharing Notes invited me to take part in something called the #MusicMakesItBetter challenge: you record an image or video of yourself singing or playing an instrument, as a way to shine a light on how music is a tool for healing, and deepening experiences. This morning I sat with my shruthi box, which many of you have asked about, and chanted a few verses of the Sri Sukta on camera. This was not easy. I know what it is to chant, and still, there was no small amount of anxiety as I sat down in front of my phone.
Singing worship music (with the exception of some sacred Christmas carols) still doesn’t make me feel much of anything except dread. But now, learning Sanskrit and using it as a tool for physical and spiritual practice is lovely. It’s powerful. My body, being made of so much water, and other, stronger, denser tissues and open spaces, vibrates beautifully when I open my mouth and let Sanskrit prayer come out of it. Unlike when I was a girl, I worry less about how I sound, or what others will think of me, and I let my body make the sound; and when I want to be silent, I keep my mouth closed allow the inner voice to make the sound that communes with the divine. What a great gift.
I can’t say anything magical to 14-year-old me that makes that painful memory of singing in public any easier. I can only say that more than twenty years later, I feel grateful to engage in a worship experience on my own terms, and excited that even though my voice isn’t really any better, I’m at least able to use it as an instrument for divine connection. You can check it out here. Hope you’ll share your #MusicMakesItBetter experiences too.
or, a yogi's case for minimalism.
I've been thinking about this post since I began downsizing, minimizing, purging, whatever the right verb is; but it's a difficult one for me to write. I think my struggle is bound in the discovery that releasing all this stuff, which is bringing up patterns of past programming and current behavior, as well as showing me things (and people and attitudes) it's time for me to release. This practice feels like a kind of spiritual one. I had no expectation that would happen.
I want to acknowledge this is tricky ground I'm treading on. Those of us who were raised in any kind of religious or spiritual tradition probably have thoughts or feelings about the relationship between people of faith and the wealth that they amass: the relationship between our practice of faith, belief, or morality, and our practice of consumerism. I am not going to write an essay about how your personal spiritual practice is your own private slot machine, if only you are earnest enough.
Instead, I want to explore the questions of whether or not this call I'm answering is perhaps rooted in a spiritual place inside my life.
In November of last year, one of my teachers taught me the first two verses of the Sri Sukta. She translated the verses for us, and pointed us in the direction of a teacher who would be able to share more of it if we were interested, specifically because it could be a spiritual practice for us interested in our spiritual practice as an aid to cultivate good and banish the dark, evil forces in our world (which feel like they're growing stronger than ever). A week later, my teachers' teacher initiated me into this practice. Our world needs the healing and power of the divine feminine, he said. I was all over this practice: the idea of a mantra practice that will help me and help me help the world? A practice invoking the divine feminine as a tool of healing and transformation, micro and macro? Where do I sign?
I got my printout of the Sanskrit and English transliteration, and downloaded a recording of instruction and recitation onto my phone, and every morning I sat and s-l-o-w-l-y learned the first 4-5 verses. I did my best, and I enjoyed it, but it was challenging.
Then, in February, I went to India.
The first two weeks I was there, staying at an ashram in Khajuraho, I was in the community that had given me the tools to begin learning it, that had taught it to my teachers, and they chanted it every day at the same time, as I'd been instructed, three times through with the final couplet added on only at the end. Every day I brought my folded little printout into the temple and sat and chanted. When I left the ashram, I kept practicing, for myself, for my community, for the world.
This slokam has a lot to do with Lakshmi. There's a lot of language about really resplendent qualities and objects: moons, suns, blessings and gifts, riches, lotuses, (also cows, which are hard to consider so blessings, but think agrarian), healing plants, auspicious behaviors, beneficent presence: the translation of it is really quite lovely. Now. You don't have to look far on the interwebs to see language that tells you that Lakshmi is the goddess you pray to if you're seeking prosperity. I believe in the blessings of God, and sometimes those are financial blessings, too. I got no problem with that. Still, I get a little wary of spiritual practices we tie to our bank account: I remember prosperity doctrines from the tradition I was raised in, that can assert that if you don't have the job/house/man*/blessing you want, it's because your faith isn't pure or true enough, because Gawd knows your heart and your heart isn't clear and you haven't earned it or don't deserve it. So when I see brightly colored websites or videos promising riches and blessings we can't imagine if we chant to Lakshmi, I start to get flashbacks. But that isn't the attitude I brought to the practice. I listened to this podcast that re-contextualized Lakshmi for me, and then it seemed perfectly obvious to me that as I moved deeper into the Sri Sukta, I'd start eliminating those things from my life that are distractions from my priorities.
It has been so compelling to consider this practice, of letting go of unnecessary items and creating space in my home, in my life, in my heart, to be a spiritual one. I hadn't considered that it could/would be, but of course it is. It makes a lot of sense that it is. Not in a kind of ascetic sense, wherein I believe that God wants me to take a vow of poverty and relinquish everything I own, though that is a part of the path, a part of some folks' path, and I'm not saying I'm closed to it. It's more that the Divine hasn't been able to fill up my life because I've been keeping too much baggage in the way. So if I let go of all this stuff that I've been clinging to (by which I don't just mean old yearbooks and holey sweaters, but also outmoded ways of self-identifying, or relationships that are a hindrance to my growth), She can pour more of herself into me and my life.
I've also learned how important a pratyahara practice is for me. It's hard for me to be still and quiet, but it's important. It's not necessarily that I consider myself an introvert or a houthouse orchid, that I need to be particularly tender with myself. But when the nature of work is outpouring, it's vital to have a practice that is investing: for as much prana is going out, the same amount has to go in. Otherwise, we find ourselves slowly but surely in a deficit situation.
Everything we take in requires some capacity of energy to ingest and digest. Agni is the biological fire or heat energy that governs metabolism, says Dr. Lad. Our agni doesn't just take in what we eat: it also has to contend with what we listen to, what we watch, who we talk with, all of what comes in. What, then, are we asking our agni to digest? Are we feeding it enough to keep it strong, or are we taxing it by over-saturating our internal fire with too much, too fast?
We have the eight limbs of yoga, right, thanks to the Sutras: yamas (external restraints), niyamas (internal observances), asana (posture), pranayama (breath retention), pratyahara (sensory withdrawal), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (complete absorption of consciousness in the Self). The first four use the external tool of the body, the last three are deeply internal and involve the individual consciousness connecting with the Absolute. Pratyahara is a kind of gatekeeper between the two. Pranayama works as a buddy with it, I find: not only does pranayama affect the physical body in a profound way, but it also can affect the mind quite powerfully and directly. Pratyahara is the practice by which we take ourselves so far inward that we begin to connect to absorption with the Self.
It's important for each of us to recognize, what in our life is a tool for connection with the Divine, and what is a distraction for connection with the Divine. Practicing minimalism is teaching me is to evaluate what my priorities are, what I value, what I want to have around and what I don't, and to eliminate those things/people/practices that are distractions on the path. Not only is it possible that extra stuff in my life is unnecessary or wasteful, it's also getting in the way of the meaningful connection that I'm seeking with God.
When I came home from India, I spent a lot of time being frustrated because I felt crowded. Isn't that funny: Yeah, I felt a little short on space sometimes in a city of 22 million people, but in my own, climate-controlled, clean house, I got twitchy and angry about it. The desire for more space is what led me to start purging. It occurs to me now I am making space for my spiritual practice, and making space as spiritual practice, and not just eliminating old, worn out, or surplus goods.
There is so much language in the tradition of cleanliness and elimination, of discernment. Clearing out and clearing away allows us to really see, to see more clearly and see more truly. The brilliant thing about existence is that it allows us to experience the Divine-as-Created-Thing-or--Person. But we often forget the temporary nature of that divine created thing. We confuse the object with the Divine.
So what if my desire for minimalism is a spiritual practice to eliminate all the places where I fail to see the Divine, to highlight the Divine-as-Created-Thing in my own life, and to prioritize that so I can move deeper toward Them?
I don't seek to create a kind of monastic existence, but maybe I can remember that my home and the life I am constructing are both a kind of divine practice.
*because it is always single women who are looking for a man in the context of this dialogue. It's not my experience that non-hetero-identified people get preached at this way. But then, the church has its own special, historical brand of totally crappy behavior when it comes to those folks.